A Conversation with Ivan Kavanagh

I spoke with Ivan Kavanagh, the writer and director of SON — available in Theaters, On Demand and Digital on March 5, 2021. Fans of thrillers are in for a treat. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.

Yanis: Everybody in this film feels so well cast. What was the process like for casting? What’s your secret?

Ivan: I spend a lot of time casting. For me it’s purely instinctual. I usually look at previous work, but the most important part for me is just to chat to the actor and see what they are like as a person and if I can see them in the role.

I usually know within the first few minutes of meeting an actor if they are right for the part.

I’ve always loved movies where the main character goes from place to place and meets all these great character actors, like a lot of the great Film Noir’s, and I wanted this film to be like that, filled with great character actors who leave an impression no matter how short their time on screen is.

Added to that, I also had, without a doubt, the best casting directors I have ever worked with, Sig De Miguel & Stephen Vincent, who were just incredible, providing me with great options for every part and going out of their way to find the right people that I wanted for the parts.

Y: What are some of the common misconceptions about child actors? How did working with Luke David Blumm defy these commonly held expectations?

I: I have worked with children, in quite prominent roles, in my last three feature films. Again, it’s all about casting and I will hold out for as long as it takes to find the right child for the role.

Emile Hirsch and Luke David Blumm in SON

We auditioned hundreds of kids for the part of David and it wasn’t until quite late in the process that we found Luke.

I knew the moment I saw his audition tape that he was the one because he was so effortlessly natural on camera, and had none of the “movie kid” characteristics that I definitely didn’t want.

He just seemed like a real kid, always, on and off camera. Andi Matichak then read on-camera with him and I drove to Atlanta to meet him and his father, Matthew.

I then had Luke read some scenes and do some improv and gave him the part there and then. He is truly extraordinary in the film I think, in what would have been a very difficult role for anyone, no matter what their age.

Y: Thrillers can be tough films to direct. How did you get such emotional performances from your actors?

I: Every actor is different, and each one requires different things from me as a director. Once the casting is correct, it is then my job to help them in any way that I can to give the best performance possible for the film.

Sometimes that is by giving them a lot of freedom, sometimes by being specific, sometimes by being quite analytical about a role, including discussing in detail each scene before we film, sometimes by not saying anything at all, but most important of all, creating an atmosphere on set that aids creativity.

It may work for some people, but for me, conflict and tension are the enemies of creativity, and I go to great lengths to keep all that from the actors.

I also do a lot of prep work with the actors on their characters before we begin filming, so that they know their characters inside-out once we commence shooting.

Y: What films and filmmakers inspired SON?

I: When I wrote SON, it was just after the birth of my first son, so, as I’m sure other parents with a new baby will confirm, I just didn’t have the time or energy to watch that many films, so I can’t say consciously at the time what my influences were.

Andi Matichak and Luke David Blumm in SON

I have however, always been fascinated by the structure and style of Nicolas Ray’s film On Dangerous Ground from 1951.

It begins as this incredible mixture of gritty realism and even, what I can only describe as expressionist realism, where we see the day to day life of this violent cop who is essentially living in this urban criminal hell, exposure to which has made him become this violent bigoted thug, worse than the criminals in many ways.

But then he is sent on a murder investigation to this countryside town where he meets Ida Lupino and suddenly the mood of the film changes completely and becomes something else, more idyllic and lyrical. It is quite extraordinary.

I was thinking of the structure of this film when I wrote SON, but in reverse, so Laura, played by Andi Matichak, goes from this seemingly idyllic life into this urban hell, like going from the world of Norman Rockwell to Taxi Driver.

Y: Some directors love to do almost the entirety of the dialogue as ADR. They want to keep shoots efficient. Others insist on getting the right take, audio and visual, on the day. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

I: I can’t stand ADR and use it only when completely necessary. I therefore get it on the day.

As far as visuals are concerned, I don’t do coverage, I pick the right shots to cover a scene and that’s it, so there are no alternative angles on any scene you saw in the film.

Y: That horrifying rattle sound a character makes in the final scene is terrifying.

The score is well done. I especially found the song in the end credits chilling. How did the score come together? What’s the secret to great audio in film?

I: For me, sound has always been half the film experience. I usually spend as much time on the sound post as I do on the picture editing.

When I write I am already hearing the sound design in my head and before I made The Canal in 2014, I was my own sound designer on all of my films.

I was then lucky enough, on The Canal, to find an amazing collaborator in Aza Hand, the sound designer and composer, and we work closely together to create the best sound design possible for the films.

Added to this, Aza always makes it better than I had originally envisioned. As far as the final song, that was from a cartoon from the 1930s that we were thinking of using, but didn’t, and my editor Robin Hill suggested we try the song from it over the end credits.

I thought it fit perfectly, as the two children in the song are singing about dreamland, and, for me, SON is very much a dream film with the feel and the logic of a nightmare.

Y: Would you have done anything differently if you could go back in time on this production?

I: I would have liked more time to shoot, but I did get everything I wanted and the film is as I wanted it, so there’s no use complaining about that now. It all worked out in the end.

Like all film productions, you forget the pain very quickly, or at least most of it anyway.

Andi Matichak in SON

Y: Why, nearly three centuries after the scientific enlightenment, do we still quiver in fear at the sight of demonic possession in movies?

I: Well, in Mississippi, where we shot, I quickly came to realize that religion, including the devil and demons, are very much seen as living breathing things there, people believe them to be real and possible, which is logical I suppose, as if you have total belief in God you therefore have to believe in the devil.

For me, the demon is just a symbol of the real evil in the world, which is people.

If these people in the film didn’t have the demon to believe in and worship, to justify the terrible things they do or may have done, it would be something or someone else.

Y: Filming and post production took place in 2020. How did the pandemic affect production?

I: We shot in Feb and March of 2020. Rumours and speculation about what the pandemic might be or turn into were just beginning back then, and, literally, as I was on the plane home to Ireland, I was hearing rumours that there may be lockdowns, so we were very lucky with timing.

The next film that came in after us to shoot in Mississippi was Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, which, as you know, was shut down, but later completed.

Editing happened remotely with Robin Hill my editor in the UK using screen sharing software, and it worked out beautifully, although obviously I would have preferred being in the same room as him.

Then sound post happened on site in EGG in Dublin after I had been quarantined, tested, and given the all clear.

Y: What’s next for you? Where can everybody follow you on social media?

I: I have a a few feature film scripts just going out for financing right now. One is called Vengeance which is a violent Neo Noir with some jet black humour, which I’ve been trying to crack for a couple of years and just did with the help of crime novelist and my co writer on it Jon Bassoff who showed me the way to go, and I just read an incredible novella by a horror novelist that I would love to adapt and I feel is a perfect fit for my filmmaking sensibilities.

I can’t talk about it at length yet, as I’m still talking to the writer, and haven’t talked to any financiers or producers about it yet, but I am very excited about it and I think it will make an absolutely terrifying horror film.

I’m also writing and show-running a fact based crime TV series called The Vanishing Triangle which is set in Ireland in the 1990s, with Park Films and MGM, and I’m always holding out hope that a great script written by someone else will come my way and I’ll want to do it.

I get offered a lot of scripts but very rarely one that I feel passionate to do. And, as for social media, I have no social media presence.

I did, but found it too distracting from my work. But people usually have no problem contacting me when they want to.

SON is available in Theaters, On Demand and Digital on March 5, 2021.

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